JHoo’s Summer Reading ’09: Running Backs

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Mikell Simpson has the skills to potentially excel in UVa’s new offense.

2009 is going to be a very interesting year for Virginia’s running backs, a group that is trying to sort itself out on the depth chart while the individual players also try to define themselves in Gregg Brandon’s offense. But make no mistake about it – there is talent in this group, and diverse talent at that.

The Starter

2009 should be a great year for Mikell Simpson … at least, that’s what it seems like on paper.

Think about it terms of the traits of Brandon’s offense compared to the strengths of Mikell Simpson ‘s game. Brandon’s offense is designed to force the defense to play the width and depth of the field; Simpson is a back that has the speed to go wide and still get up the field. Brandon’s offense will create natural running lanes by spreading out the line of scrimmage; Simpson showed in 2007 that if he is given sealed running lanes, he can turn up the field quickly and really hurt a defense. Brandon’s offense, because of the spreading of personnel, puts an emphasis on open field blocking; Simpson has always been adept at setting up blocks in the open field – sometimes overdoing it, in fact, as he occasionally has slowed to set up a block when a lane already was available to explode into. Brandon’s offense prefers versatile backs, the kind of backs that can threaten a defense both as a runner and as a receiver; Simpson has posted a game in which he had over 100 yards in both rushing and receiving, highlighting how versatile he can be.

So Simpson is going to be a star in Brandon’s offense, right? I want to say yes and an on-paper analysis would indicate yes … but I just am not sure.

Frankly speaking, Simpson is just a guy that I have a tough time getting a read on. At times, Simpson looks so instinctive as he glides up the field, making subtle changes of direction to exploit opportunities. At other times, however, Simpson seems to lose his feel for the game, his gliding looking more like indecision. Simpson’s prior experiences in the spread have been mixed, too – despite the fact that the spread should be a perfect offense for Simpson, most of his best games have come when the offense was operating in more of a pro set, often in games when play action was particularly effective and plays like the draw and screen pass were clicking (side note: I am hoping the middle screen is a play that really works in Brandon’s offense because it is a play that Simpson just loves). I think Mikell Simpson is helped by having the right guys in the huddle with him, too, as I think it is no coincidence that Simpson has tended to look particularly effective when paired on the field with Jameel Sewell . Finally, he is a back that relies as much as any on the effectiveness of his offensive line – while a back like Cedric Peerman last year can create some running opportunities even if the running lanes are not cleanly sealed, or save a run even when a defender gets an early hit on him, Simpson’s gift is in his acceleration, not in his strength, and arm tackles and bumps at or near the line of scrimmage really can disrupt his game.

Assuming health and eligibility, I expect to see Simpson as the starter in 2009. Assuming good line play and a comfort level in the new offense and with his quarterback, I expect to see Simpson play well. But when I get that many assumptions bouncing around in my mind, “sure thing” no longer are words that come to mind.

Max Milien’s versatility should give him a shot at playing time this season.

The Depth Chart

Despite the fact that I am not certain about what we will get from Mikell Simpson in 2009, I am very confident that we will get the play we need out of the running back position. Why? Because there is a lot of talent on the depth chart.

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Torrey Mack , for example, and I think there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Mack’s future. A lot of people like to compare Mack to Simpson and while there are some similarities, I think those are more in terms of build and less in terms of running style. While both Simpson and Mack bring a lot of speed to the field, for example, there is much less gliding with Mack, a back who tends to run very decisively once he has picked his hole. The difference is particularly obvious in the open field: Simpson is more likely to slow and slide to set up a block in the open field but Mack is more of a juke-and-go runner, trusting in his speed to create distance between him and the defender. Mack also is a little more powerful coming through the line of scrimmage, making him less susceptible to arm tackles.

In terms of areas for growth, Mack has plenty of those, too. Mack has good hands, for example – not surprising for a player that frequently split out as a wide receiver in high school – but he is still improving in terms of his feel for the passing game. As a blocker, Mack is willing but in the process of improving his technique. And if there is one unbreakable rule when it comes to Al Groh and his running backs, Mack has to focus on ball security. But in the end, we are talking about the kind of areas for growth that you would expect from a young back and none of that changes the fact that Torrey Mack is a very talented, very instinctive running back with a bright future ahead of him.

Somewhat forgotten with the buzz about Torrey Mack has been Max Milien but I fully expect Milien to get his chances on the field in 2009, an expectation driven in large part by the fact that Milien’s versatility makes him an excellent fit for Gregg Brandon’s offense. Milien is a running back that certainly could have been slotted at wide receiver when he came out of high school, for example, and he still has shown an aptitude for the receiving aspects of the game, making him a likely option in the slot at times next season. He also has improved his strength quite a bit over the last two years, making him a much more physical runner than he was when he entered the program and better complementing an explosive style of running that Milien has had since his high school days. Milien has a good field sense and is a willing and improving blocker, two other relative strengths that will help Milien get a long look going into the fall and some snaps once the games begin. What he does with those snaps is up to Milien.

Keith Payne needs to define his running style in order to improve his chances at success.

A back that is not necessarily as likely to get snaps in the fall is Keith Payne , a player heading into what really is a make-or-break year for him. Payne has gone from internet superhero to internet bust in a couple of years but the simple fact is that Payne still has a couple of years left in the program and thus still has a chance to establish himself and define his career. To do that, however, Payne really has to define his running style, the same kind of curse that afflicted Michael Johnson a few short years ago. Payne is far from a fullback-type power back, for example, but it is going to be tough for him to carve a niche on the field as a guy that dances around a lot. Instead, Payne really needs to find a middle ground that suits him, one in which he runs to space where he can but uses his power willingly and effectively when he must. If Payne can do that, I am confident that there is a role for him in this offense. The offense, however, may be a problem for Payne as more than one person who knows the game has commented on the fact that Payne has been miscast in the offenses UVa has run over the past several years and in all honesty, it is hard to see Brandon’s spread offense being better for Payne than the sets we have run predominantly over the past two years.

Personally, I am not ready to give up on Payne at this point; after all, the talent that wowed many observers during Payne’s redshirt year still is there. But he needs to take things up a notch – and do so quickly – to stay in the picture. One way he could do that is to improve some of the ancillary aspects of his game. It is hard to understand, for example, why Payne is not one of the very best blocking backs on the team but the simple fact is that he is not. Similarly, Payne could help his standing with better play on special teams … and if you don’t think that matters, let me offer you the example of Raynard Horne , a player who was having a very difficult time getting the attention (in a positive way) of the staff until his excellent play on special teams last year got him right back into the coaches’ good graces. Payne still has chances ahead of him but he would be well served to take advantage of those chances early.

The “Fullbacks”

Begging the question of whether there are fullbacks in Gregg Brandon’s offense, let’s discuss the fullbacks.

So of course, we start that discussion with a fullback who arguably is more of a tailback and less of a fullback: Rashawn Jackson . While Jackson has the size and build of a fullback, he really has never excelled in that role as it is most purely defined. Jackson’s blocking has never looked very natural, for example, as Jackson has had to work very hard to improve his footwork, his decision-making, and (most of all) his pad level. Similarly, Jackson’s natural high pad level has meant that he never been the most powerful of inside runners, a role that is difficult for Jackson anyway because as a matter of instincts, he remains a back that is looking for a hole and a chance to make a three-yard play into a 20-yard gainer.

What I am trying to decide at this point is whether Jackson can become the “big back” in Brandon’s offense, the back you love to have on the field when you need a running threat but also a solid blocker in the backfield. Jackson certainly has the athleticism for that role but right now, I still think it will have to remain an open question as to whether he can fill the role. I do think Jackson’s rushing can be aided by the spacing of the offense as Jackson is looking for a hole – as opposed to someone to run over – on most plays. Up until now, however, Jackson has never been the back that would be on the field when there was only one back there and that back had to be able to pass block on a play where a missed block was not an option (a role obviously filled by Cedric Peerman last year). Jackson’s blocking certainly has improved over the last two years but we have seen a lot more of his run blocking than his pass blocking and I worry if Jackson has the instincts to feel the rush and commit to the block early enough to give the quarterback the pocket he needs. But if my worry is overstated, if Jackson can be that solid blocking back, his rushing skills and his ability to be a solid option on flair and even screen passes means that he could find a fair number of reps next year.

Compared to Jackson, Curt Orshoski is much more of a natural fullback, more of a fire hydrant-type as a friend of mine frequently says. Orshoski was a very effective back (and linebacker) in high school with a knack for picking up a yard when a yard was needed. Plus, he has a thirst and skill for lead blocking that is rare among our current backs. But given the uncertainty about that role in the current offense, it is difficult for me to predict with any certainty how many opportunities Orshoski will get on a going-forward basis.

The Newcomers

With the current depth chart at running back, it was not necessary for UVa to recruit a running back in this past year’s class. As of today, it is unclear whether they did.

The key figure in the discussion is Dominique Wallace , a highly recruited prospect out of Chancellor who was a flat-out stud in high school. Too big and strong for a lot of defenders and too fast for most of the others, Wallace also displayed more wiggle than one would expect from a back that measured 6’1″ and more than 230 pounds. While Wallace will run pretty high, he has shown a willingness to drop a shoulder into a defender when the opportunity is there and he runs with enough power in his lower body that arm tackles are not likely to bring him down. Wallace’s blocking has not been tested much but he has shown a physical presence as a blocker in his few cameos, leading me to believe that he can be a good blocker with training though I would not view him as a fullback prospect – he is a tailback by style.

The catch, however, is that he might not end up as a tailback at Virginia based on two factors. First, it is an open question at this point as to whether this offense will be a good fit for a big back like Wallace (or Payne, for that matter). Second, Wallace is a really, really good inside linebacker prospect, too, a position at which a lot of schools projected him.

So what do I think will happen with Wallace? I think he will get his first shot at tailback and if he impresses there and it feels like the fit works, he could stick. That very well could happen. But in all honesty, my gut tells me that Wallace will be a linebacker – a good one – before his time is out at UVa.

A small side note: I think Perry Jones also could be an interesting option as a tailback. But I fully expected Jones to be slotted at safety or cornerback, a slotting about which I, of all people, certainly will not complain.

The Conclusion

While this team may have numbers issues at certain positions – the offensive line, anyone? – that is not an issue at running back, a position where the staff can choose from myriad options. In fact, given all the options available, I fully expect that we will see several backs get fairly significant time early in 2009, particularly as Gregg Brandon gets comfortable with the talent he has at his disposal. And while Al Groh often has shown a tendency to ride the hot back in a rotation, Brandon’s offense should provide opportunities to get playmakers onto the field in different roles. In other words, if a back shows he can make plays, he will be afforded the chance to do so.

In the end, my view is pretty simple: there are plenty of positions to worry about going into 2009 but I do not think running back needs to be one of them.

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